Editorial: A Culture of Weenies

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Got an e-mail the other day with the subject line: "1 Million Apologies." Opening it revealed that somewhere in an inbox of several hundred unopened

e-mails, there was one meant for someone else. The sender apparently pressed a wrong button and felt compelled to follow it with a profuse apology.

The event wasn't important. But the culture that created it is.

By the tone of his apology, one would think this guy ran over someone's dog. Is this what we've come to? He made an honest, harmless mistake. He wasn't harvesting names -- at least in this instance. He wasn't lying in the subject line, and he used his real return address. No pyramid scheme, no chain letter, no porn.

Just a mistake.

Yet, he clearly felt that self-flagellation was in order.

Who must this guy have dealt with in past e-mails to think this was necessary? People who need a real problem, that's who.

The bigger picture is that as a result of this sorry-I-brushed-against-you-please-berate-me culture, the

e-mail industry's various factions keep going round and round over the definition of opt in, boxes checked or unchecked, and who's ethical, who's not. Meanwhile, the true spammers don't care. They are by definition unrepentant.

And now we've got an atmosphere where more than a few merchants are afraid to mail their own customers. The phone calls and e-mails arrive regularly in iMarketing News' editorial offices: "Could you please tell me what spam is and is not? I thought I was doing it right, but I've been getting threats. I certainly don't want to offend anyone."

Well, apparently, we've become a nation of oversensitive weenies, which makes it nearly impossible to avoid offending people.

Here's an idea for a Web site:

You'reAWeenie.com, an industry sponsored non-profit where marketers can forward knee-jerk e-mail rants from recipients and mail administrators who flip out because of honest mistakes.

That way, Internet marketers can spend their valuable time figuring out how to turn a profit before the dot-com grace period runs out, and You'reA

Weenie.com can deliver temper-soothing apologies by auto-responder.

And if auto-apologies aren't enough, the site could also have teleservices reps available 24 hours a day: "You're a Weenie. Can I help you?"

A respected colleague said the Internet culture creates much-needed respect for the medium. But this is not respect. It's fear. And fear breeds paralysis.

Meanwhile, there's a 1,200-pound bear just over the horizon. No one wants to talk about it, but, nonetheless, it will swallow a bunch of unsuspecting Web companies whole unless something is done about it: Electronic acquisition costs are too high, and the prospecting is too thin.

Sure, some of the Internet's acquisition woes stem from poor creative execution, but part of the reason is that a significant portion of the marketing community is afraid - or lacks the patience - to prospect electronically.

This isn't a call to support spam. It is, however, a call for a little more tolerance for honest mistakes and an end to the attitude that marketers must be forced to keep their evil urges under control.

The days of spending 40 percent of revenue on marketing must sooner or later end - which means

e-merchants will have to figure out ways to reach more people and get acquisition costs down. And that takes a little experimentation, and, yes, the occasional e-mail to the wrong person.

The hard-core anti-spammers often smugly discuss enlightening traditional marketers about the double-digit response rates of opt-in e-mail. Someone needs to educate them about the effect shrinking prospecting universes can have on an industry's potential for growth.

The current efforts to stamp out all but the most ultra-polite electronic marketing may succeed. If so, let's hope someone's around to remind the hard-core anti-spammers of their part in it, as they watch their kids' college tuition and retirement portfolios dry up because they convinced a bunch of marketers that intrusive pitches are immoral.

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